If Hollywood decided to make a film about the academic boycott of Israel, last Friday’s decision by the UCU to announce that a boycott was illegal would be the climax of the film and it would end with boycotters mortally wounded, and the film would finish with world peace and everybody living happily ever after.
Sadly life isn’t that simple, but to listen to the media and from the comments and emails I have received you would think this is the case, as people now believe that as the boycott has been defeated the IAB, AFI, Stop the Boycott, Engage and SPME will be shutting up shop shortly and we will all be going back to our day jobs. A stunning victory has been achieved and everyone who has been involved in bringing this about deserves to be congratulated. But those detractors of the State of Israel have not been dealt that final mortal blow and our work has to continue to confront and expose these people for what they are.
The decision to call off the boycott
The only reason the boycott was called off by the UCU last Friday was because the legal advice they received, which cost several hundred thousand pounds said:
“It would be beyond the union’s powers and unlawful for the union, directly or indirectly, to call for, or to implement, a boycott by the union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of union funds directly or indirectly to further such a boycott would also be unlawful.” The advice also said that “to ensure that the union acts lawfully, meetings should not be used to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott.”
The legal advice also made clear that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation. The call to boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU.
Last Friday’s UCU statement can be found at: http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=2829
Whilst it would be flattering for the pressure groups to take the credit for this change, we have no way of knowing at present if this is the case. What we do know is that the legal advice which the UCU had for something like two months only underpinned that previously received. It makes more sense, therefore to assume as UCU have consistently demonstrated, that the Durban “protocols” are fundamental to their beliefs and they have been looking for “wriggle room” in order to boycott but failed during these last two months to find a way out.
The only thing we know is that the dates of the start of the road show, which we now know would have been illegal, were drawing frighteningly near. This must have been the catalyst for the withdrawal of the call. One wonders what the legal implications for the anti-boycotters would have been if they had joined the road show. They presumably would have been guilty of aiding and abetting an illegal act.
It is obvious then that the UCU didn’t change their views because they had the interests of the UK universities and their members at heart. The boycott motion was putting at risk jobs, research funding, the reputation and the standing of UK academia in the world and academic freedom. The reputation of the British Trade union movement had also been damaged because of actions of the UCU. As in 2005 they only realised they had to do something when it became clear to leadership that internationally they were pariahs.
What I don’t understand is that in 2005 at the time of the AUT boycott they received legal advice the effect of which was to defeat the boycott at the time. So when the 2007 motions were put forward they were aware of any illegalities because of that previous advice. The motions had broadly similar aims and both quoted the Palestinian boycott call. We know that their actions in 2005 did put the union assets at risk because Paul Mackey told NATFHE congress that year that if NATFHE wanted to boycott Israeli academics they had to do it properly otherwise union assets would be at risk. Also if they had learnt anything from 2005 why didn’t the Unions officer’s take advice before Congress in June and withdraw the motion on the grounds that it was discriminatory, illegal and would put the union’s assets at risk?
I don’t know how long they have had the legal advice but AFI has written several times to the UCU since June and they refused me, as a member of the union, sight of the motion six weeks ago. So if they had the advice then why did they waste everybody’s time by keeping up the façade of arranging the road show, issuing circulars etc, until now? Did they think they could keep the legal advice secret?
How will the UCU react in the future?
The one positive thing that has come out of this affair is that everyone now knows that calling a boycott could infringe UK discrimination legislation. Also at risk will be any academic who decides to boycott Israeli academics or Institutions as they may well be breaking discrimination laws, as well as their university discrimination rules and their contract of employment. Professor Wilkie who refused to have an Israeli academic in his laboratory in 2003 was found guilty by Oxford University of discrimination and suspended for two months.
Will anything change within the UCU? I doubt it, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise. The UCU I know, has a General Secretary who has been in charge of her Union for three out of four boycott attempts in the past five years and has never once to my knowledge said publically that she is against an academic boycott of Israel. What she says is that she believes her membership is against boycotts, which is not the same thing. In addition the UCU has links with Ber Zeit University in the West Bank which go back more than 15 years and 50% of the membership of the current NEC, which includes Sue Blackwell and Tom Hickey both, well known boycotters, are from the far Left. NATFHE one of the Unions which merged with the AUT to form the UCU was in my view from 2002 onwards the most pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli union in the UK because of its criticism of Israel polices and actions. With a heritage like that why should anything change?
According to an email from the UCU which was circulated last week, the Strategy and Finance Committee of the UCU which voted the boycott off the agenda last Friday recognised:
“the importance of allowing the issues of Israel and Palestine to be put before members in order to focus our union’s efforts on investigating ways of providing solidarity with Palestinian educators and contributing positively to a just peace. Alternative arrangements will be made to enact the non-boycott aspects of Resolution 30 before UCU Congress 2008.”
The first part of this statement confirms for me that the UCU will continue to find ways of carrying on as before demonising and criticising Israel. Will they be dealing with the part of resolution 30 that states “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic” which runs contrary to the EUMC definition of antisemitism? This is unlikely in my view as the Left don’t believe this statement to be true or even recognise the EUMC definition. We have called upon the General Secretary and the NEC to publically condemn this part of resolution 30. But they will almost certainly build links with Palestinian educational institutions which is also part of the same motion. Is this what Sally Hunt means when she says:
“We must play a positive role in supporting Palestinian and Israeli educators and in promoting a just peace in the Middle East?”
Where are the links with the Israeli Institutions in all this?
What everyone overlooks is that another anti-Israel motion was passed at the May Congress, resolution 31 proposed by Sue Blackwell. This calls for the Union to campaign for a moratorium on EU research and cultural collaborations with Israel. The legal advice only covered resolution 30 but to me a moratorium is a boycott, but will the UCU see it that way?
What can we do for the future?
It is clear the critics of Israel are not going to go away and we have to be ready for the next time, when ever that is. Just like the way antisemitism evolves into new forms, the boycotter’s policies and aims will morph into new ways to criticise and demonise Israel. This coming weekend the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is holding an international conference in London. It’s purpose will be to plan for a campaign for 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of establishment of the State of Israel, and to build a new mass anti-apartheid campaign. We must continue to search out and expose the “silent boycotters” and any future plansto end joint projects between UK and Israeli academics.
All the groups who fought the boycott in 2005 learnt from their experiences and this year we were all better prepared for this year’s campaign. We know that at least 60% of British Universities have links and contacts with Israeli Universities but very few people outside those Universities are aware of these programmes and the general public have no knowledge of what goes on or that Israeli academia are premier league and everyone wants to collaborate with the best. In the interests of peace in the region one of our priorities for the future has to be to tell the world about Israeli/UK and Israeli/Palestinian/ Arab academic projects and cooperation. In addition many Israeli world class academics who are specialist in their fields regularly visit Britain, but they do not get the publicity that they deserve.
Several months ago the Academic Friends of Israel decided after discussing with our partners in Israel, theInternational Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB) who we have been working closely with over the last two years, thatas academics this is where our future focus should be, playing our part in publicising and expanding existing UK-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian academic cooperation.
Neither must we forget that our students as well as academics will continue to have to face the threats of antisemitism on campus and the demonisation of Israel at college meetings and will need our support.
Academic Friends of Israel
UCU announces boycott and discussion of boycott are illegal
UCU Press Statement: Israel boycott illegal and cannot be implemented UCU tells members, 28 September 2007
Email from UCU to UCU members:
Union deems Israeli academic boycott illegal, Liz Ford, The Guardian, September 28, 2007
Lecturers’ plans to boycott Israeli universities ‘illegal’, Richard Garner, The Independent, 29 September 2007 http://news.independent.co.uk/education/education_news/article3010207.ece
Britain: Israeli Boycott Plan Deemed Illegal, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/29/world/europe/29briefs-boycott.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
British academic union: boycott of Israel would be unlawful and cannot be implemented, The Associated Press, September 28, 2007 http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/09/29/europe/EU-GEN-Britain-Israel.php
Lecturers drop Israeli universities boycott call after legal advice
Saturday September 29, 2007, The Guardian
Israel boycott plans ‘unlawful’, BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7019027.stm
Britain’s UCU decides not to boycott Israel, YNET, Hagit Klaiman 09.28.07
FM praises British academics for nixing planned boycott of Israel
30/09/2007, Haaretz &AP http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/908295.html
British academic union: boycott of Israel would be unlawful and cannot be implemented, AP, 28/9/07
Bar Ilan academic council praises UCU announcement against Israel boycott http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1189411508645&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
UK academic boycott efforts come to an end, Jerusalem Post
By HAVIV RETTIG AND JOHNNY PAUL, 28/9/07
UK union: no academic boycott of Israel, By Raphael G. Satter, Associated Press Writer | September 28, 2007 http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2007/09/28/uk_union_no_academic_boycott_of_israel/?rss_id=Boston.com+%2F+News
Academic boycott campaign is finally defeated – morally, politically, legally, David Hirsh http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=1433
On invoking the law to oppose boycott and why only now? Shalom Lappin http://fleshisgrass.wordpress.com/2007/09/30/on-invoking-the-law-to-oppose-boycott-and-why-only-now/
Israel boycott ‘illegal’, News in Brief http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article2554307.ece
British Faculty Union Cites Legal Advice in Abandoning Proposed Boycott of Israel, September 28, 2007 http://chronicle.com/news/index.php?id=3140
More from Last week:
Boycott Debate Simmers on Israeli Front-Burners, September 27, 2007 – Bryan Schwartzman, Staff Writer http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/14147/
Britain‘s Labor party decries academic boycott
Below are 2 items:
1) Bricup press release: UCU Ban on Discussion of Israeli Academic Boycott Condemned
2) Open Letter to Ms. Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, by Federation of Union of Palestinian Universities’ Professors & Employees:
1) Bricup press release, September 29, 2007
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
UCU Ban on Discussion of Israeli Academic Boycott Condemned
BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) today condemned the decision of the University and College Union (UCU) to cancel the tour of UK campuses by Palestinian academics. UCU was specifically instructed to organise this tour by the UCU Congress last May. The tour was intended to raise debate within the union about an academic boycott of Israeli universities. The UCU leadership under General Secretary Sally Hunt is hiding behind ‘legal advice’ which they have not disclosed to their members in order to sabotage a decision with which they disagree.
In May 2007 in Bournemouth, UCU Annual Congress voted by 158 to 99 in favour of a resolution which instructed the National Executive Committee to
- circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
- encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
- organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
- issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.
- actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinian educational institutions and to help set up nationally sponsored programmes for teacher exchanges, sabbatical placements, and research
The UCU senior office holders led by General Secretary Sally Hunt argued fiercely against this motion. The motion’s effect was to initiate a year-long debate about boycotting Israeli universities. Having lost the argument they are now finding other means to subvert the democratic vote of the union’s highest decision-making body.
This use of the law to interfere with democratic freedoms is a deeply worrying tendency – witness the 2005 Serious and Organized Crimes Act preventing protests around Parliament and Downing Street, and the decision last week to ban the march in Central London planned by the Stop the War Coalition.
BRICUP has the deepest doubts about the validity of the ‘legal advice’ which UCU is claiming as the reason for its cancellation of the tour by Palestinians, and the effective banning of discussion of the boycott topic in union branches. BRICUP demands answers to the following questions:
- who provided the legal advice?
- what was the verbatim advice received? It needs to be published so that it can be open to critical scrutiny
- was any previous advice sought from other sources, and if so what was its content?
According to BRICUP co-chair Professor Jonathan Rosenhead “It is all too common for governments and other bodies to go to a lawyer who will give them the advice they want to hear. This is how the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith got the advice that the invasion of Iraq was ‘legal'”.
Further information: Mike Cushman 07736 705294
2) Federation of Union of Palestinian Universities’ Professors & Employees: Open Letter to Ms. Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union
Dear Ms. Hunt,
We have received with dismay, although not entirely with surprise, your letter of September 28, 2007 to members of the delegation of Palestinian academic trade union members informing them of the decision by the University and College Union’s leadership to cancel their speaking tour to the UK to discuss the academic boycott of Israel with their colleagues at universities there. We wish to state clearly that we believe that our British colleagues have been deprived of an opportunity to better inform themselves about an issue which is of concern to conscientious academics and intellectuals the world over. Moreover, we are disappointed to see that the leadership of a prominent organization of academics such as yours has not defended the right of its members to engage in debate on this matter. Open debate and discussion are the foundations of academic freedom, and thus we cannot understand why the door to open consideration of controversial ideas has been so abruptly closed.
We shall continue to pursue other avenues to make our case heard in the academic community in the UK, and shall not be deterred by the cancellation of the invitation extended to us by the UCU. While we do not have the resources of the Israel lobby in the UK, we do think that fair-minded British academics will be willing to listen to our case and give it thoughtful consideration. Truth is stronger than power, and we trust in the integrity of British academics to know that instinctively.
We do not think that your members are unaware of the significant role played by the UCU’s predecessor, the AUT, in upholding academics’ commitment to justice. During the struggle against the odious apartheid regime in South Africa, British academics were at the forefront of the academic and other boycotts of the racist state. We do not see why considering ways of fighting Israeli oppression of Palestinians should be subject to different considerations.
We appreciate the sentiments expressed in your letter about “finding a way of opening a dialogue with the Palestinian academic community on building solidarity.” The best form of solidarity with Palestinians, whether they are academics or ordinary people, is direct action aimed at bringing an end to the occupation and the regime of apartheid in Palestine. Isolating Israel in the international arena through various forms of boycott and sanctions and forcing it to obey international law and respect Palestinian rights is one of the strategies open to international civil society, including members of the academy. We are confident that our British colleagues will begin to realize that true solidarity with Palestinian academics requires a political commitment to bringing about an end to oppression and injustice.
Dr. Amjad Barham
The President of Federation of Union of Palestinian Universities’ Professors & Employees.